Take a walk through North Philly history

cleanup_askale101 Whether you drive, walk or bike to campus, you may unknowingly share one thing with your fellow students and neighborhood residents – the vast history that encompasses North Philadelphia.

That history of struggle and poverty has become the focus of venues in the area – such as Joe Frazier’s Gym, the Freedom Theater and Progress Plaza – that ensure a positive future for the neighborhood.

The Legendary Blue Horizon
Rows of black-framed photos of famous faces hung on the wall behind her. She pushed herself up from her cluttered desk, extended her hand and said, “Touch it.” After a brief pause, I obeyed.

“Now you have touched a piece of history,” said Vernoca L. Michael, boxing promoter and CEO of the Legendary Blue Horizon.
History is exactly what Michael represents. She has spent the last 15 years of her life working for the venue, well known for hosting championship boxing matches throughout the past 80 years.

Located in the heart of historical North Philly at 1314 N. Broad St., the Legendary Blue Horizon has opened its doors and ring to plentiful talent, and has remained a thriving entity within the Philadelphia community. Michael, who became the first black woman to acquire the title of boxing promoter in 1998, uses her local celebrity to help make changes in Philadelphia and around the world.

“Here at the Legendary Blue Horizon, we’re more than just the No. 1 boxing venue in the world,” Michael said. “We are here in North Philadelphia trying to reach out to the people. We are right in the people’s backyard, something they can be proud of.”

“We are a history they can touch and experience,” she added, while pointing out some of her famous acquaintances, boxing champions George Benton, Harold Johnson and Tim Witherspoon, and celebrities like Busta Rhymes and Nas in her framed photos.

Michael and her staff at the Legendary Blue Horizon are all about helping the people in and out of the boxing ring. NIA KUUMBA is a learning and organization center run from within the boxing venue’s walls, which offers opportunities to students in areas of sports management, law, journalism, marketing and other fields.

“The Legendary Blue Horizon stands as a beacon for the people,” Michael said. “They come here when they have needs and we welcome all. We are here to help prepare the youth for the future and to do that, we need to prepare them for the working world. They can receive preparation here.”

The Village of Arts and Humanities
The need to reach out and guide the Philadelphia youth can be seen as a widespread theme of the North Philadelphia venues that are striving for change.

The Village of Arts and Humanities is one of those places. Resting at 2544 Germantown Ave., the Village, also known as “The House of Love,” has been serving students of low-income families for 20 years – offering them a place to enhance their artistic skills in the forms of modern dance, spoken word, comic book design and video editing. Students, between the ages of 13 and 19, and who are from the immediate neighborhood, have shown a keen interest in participating in the program and have progressed outside of the Village as well.

“The students that come here really use their involvement in art as a catalyst to get involved in so many other things,” said Kenny Jones, the arts and education manager. “Some are apprehensive at first to devote their time into coming and working on their projects, but the exposure to new things really changes them. They are motivated to work hard and finish school and even think about continuing to college.”

While the push to get Philadelphia youths to college may be an important, yet difficult challenge, art isn’t the only form of motivation of these concerned advocates.

Joe Frazier’s Gym
Marvis Frazier and his father, the legendary boxer Joe Frazier, offer boxing as a preparatory method to encourage students to excel in school and in life.

“We here at Joe Frazier’s Gym aren’t a big organization,” Marvis Frazier said. “We’re more like a mom-and-pop place, but we know the ground rules for obtaining success. We teach basic boxing skills, but we also teach kids discipline and respect – two things important for improvement.”

With open doors since the ‘70s, Joe Frazier’s Gym, located at 2917 N. Broad St., serves men, women and children who have the desire to work with a legend and gain more than just fighting skills.

“Our main goal is to steer the youth in the right direction,” Frazier said. “There are so many paths they could take, but we try to teach that education is most important. We have to guide and show good leadership, and that is what we are trying to do.”

Progress Plaza
Another beacon of North Philadelphia that serves the community is Progress Plaza, the strip mall at 1501 N. Broad St. Home to community friendly stores like Payless ShoeSource, RadioShack and the dollar store, Progress Plaza is making headway in the community by introducing its newest addition, the Fresh Grocer, set to open its doors by June 2008.

“Progress Plaza is an integral part of this community,” Benjamin Gilbert, the executive director of the shopping center, said. “We have a variety of stores that serve the people’s needs. With the building of the new supermarket we are hoping to serve many more.”

Freedom Theatre
Whether you’re in the mood to enjoy a play, musical or just immerse yourself in art and history, you can walk down to 1346 N. Broad St., where Freedom Theater sits. Founded in 1968, Freedom Theatre is Pennsylvania’s oldest black theater. And it does more than just produce great shows – the dedicated staff works to uplift and mold youths into great artists.

The Performing Arts Training Program has been around for 30 years, and since its birth, has given children in the region a chance to put their energy toward something constructive and useful. Classes in which students learn to dance, sing and act serve as more that just extracurricular activities for the kids – they serve as stepping stones to the future.

“I really love coming here. I dance, act and sing, so that means I’m a triple-threat,” said Madiyah, a seventh grader who attends the Performing Arts Training Program. “I have been coming here for two months, and it makes me really happy being able to do what I like to do and have fun.”

While many kids may be most concerned with having fun, they don’t realize how much that fun helps them to succeed. According to the statistics posted on the Freedom Theatre Web site, 98 percent of the students participating in the Performing Arts Training Program or other extracurricular programs graduate from high school.

“I am glad for Freedom Theatre because after coming here I know that I love to sing and act and just be on stage,” Madiyah said. “I know I want to do this when I go to high school and even when I go to college.”

Kendra Howard can be reached at kendra.howard@temple.edu.

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